Roads to the center: The design, use, and meaning of the roads of Xunantunich, Belize

Angela H. Keller
Dept. of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania
July, 2006


This dissertation documents the planning, construction, use, and eventual abandonment of the roads of Xunantunich, a mid-sized Maya center in the upper Belize River Valley occupied primarily in the Late to Terminal Classic periods (ca. A.D. 600--950). Whereas most archaeological work at Maya centers concentrates on pyramids, palaces, and other conspicuous architecture, this project investigates the generally neglected roads and access points that formed the connective fabric of a center. By focusing on the roads, I hoped to arrive at a better understanding of the function and meaning of ancient Maya centers, as envisioned by the elite architects and experienced by the regional populace. For this work, a contextual and conjunctive approach was crucial to the successful recovery and interpretation of the few material remains. In addition, a detailed review of Mayan-language terms for roads suggested a diversity of ancient road forms, and a host of symbolic associations for these elementary constructions.
In redefining the city and polity of Xunantunich in the Late Classic period, the elite planners used roads deliberately to create a coherent site plan, to integrate disparate political entities, to foster certain forms of movement and activity, and to convey significant messages about the order and legitimacy of the new sociopolitical system. Once in place, the roads were the location of a
variety of activities, both ritual and mundane, that further shaped the place of Xunantunich. An investigation of these roads reveals something of the dynamism of an ancient Maya center as it was designed and experienced. I conclude that many of the archaeologically recorded roads in the Maya area were intimately associated with the power and the person of the local ruler. Further, these political statements were often designed with reference to cosmological spatio-temporal precepts. By walking along their roads, the Maya performed time. They displayed the passage of time and the transition of temporal cycles as spatially rooted entities. Inasmuch as Classic Maya rulers aspired to be masters of time, history, and destiny, they needed roads to enact that mastery in the physical world.